“Huh. I think I’m the only brown person in this room right now.”
I say that phrase to myself a lot. Most of the time—like when I’m at work, or back when I was in school—the thought would sidle up to my train of thought like some sort of bandit, hijacking it for a few seconds and then whispering, “This isn’t for you!” into my ear before kindly derailing the whole thing. When I’m at an event like E3 or Comic Con though, the metaphorical bandit doesn’t even need to hijack my train of thought—it’s already the conductor.
That voice in my head is what made walking into Blizzard Arena for the first time earlier this year a bit of a journey for me. I knew I liked Overwatch, and I knew I was excited about Overwatch League, but I was afraid that my affinity and excitement would be tested by the people around me when I sat down—it wouldn’t be the first time.
Who’s In, Who’s Out
The effects of gatekeeping are felt in every fandom, no matter the size or sphere. Maintaining a set of requirements for being a fan of a thing—and ostracizing those who don’t meet those requirements—functions to confirm the validity of that group for the people already in it. The “gamer” identity, for example, is one that reads as only being for cis white men, even though everyone plays video games. Game developers sometimes reinforce that image by allowing sexism to fester in their offices—e.g. Riot Games—or by relying on the use of racially questionable tropes like the “white savior” to tell stories—like in the Far Cry series.
With Overwatch, Blizzard has attempted to buck those trends, approaching representation in its lore not as checkboxes on a to-do list, but as a reflection of the world we all actually live in—a big difference from thinking about it as a nuisance to be dealt with. As trite as it may sound, representation matters! I dove headfirst into Overwatch because it feels good to play, yes, but also because I can see myself in the game. My Hispanic, Asian, and queer friends can see themselves in the game. In a space where the default hero is still frequently a grizzled white man, booting up the game and being greeted by Lucio’s smug grin goes a heck of a long way.
My attachment to the game drove me to try to follow eSports for the first time when the Overwatch League (OWL) started up. I picked a local team, got to know the league’s players, and started to read up on the metagame. Once the season got going, though, that whisper in my head had turned into a scream. The goodwill that inclusivity fosters begins to evaporate once it’s revealed that inclusion has limits, and the league was beset by incidents involving racism, sexism, and homophobia that raised a litany of questions.
Representation vs Reality
The beginning of the season coincided with the spike in popularity of the “Ugandan Knuckles” meme, a racist joke with just enough plausible deniability that it was absolutely everywhere for a few months, including Overwatch. Blizzard’s complacency on the subject quickly evolved into complicity when crowd shots of fans in the arena prominently featured signs leaning into the meme, and the official San Francisco Shock, LA Valiant, and Dallas Fuel Twitter accounts tweeted their own takes on the joke.
When paired with the appearance of a Pepe the Frog sign on opening night, I couldn’t help but think that the gates had already been put up around the league. After some pushback from fans and press, the league walked away from this particular flavor of content, and Blizzard became more careful about the signs they’d allow in the arena—but did nothing to outwardly address the racial insensitivity bubbling within its community.
This inaction broke bad midway through the season when internet personality Malik Forté was brought on to serve as the host for the league’s Twitch broadcasts. I’d been following Forté for a while before he started with the Overwatch League, so I was excited to watch him work—Twitch chat had other ideas, though. The normally discordant, copypasta-laden flow became a steady stream of “trihard” emotes whenever Forte was on screen. The continued racial insensitivity was emboldened by former Dallas Fuel player Félix “xQc” Lengyel’s use of the emote in the official Overwatch League chat, prompting Forté to tweet: “Look, these stream monsters aren’t use[d] to people like me in their esports.”
Blizzard can promote diversity in Overwatch’s characters and narrative all they want, but those efforts are moot if they are soft on emphasizing those values outside of it. The Dallas Fuel released xQc after his second suspension—the first was for homophobic remarks—but he is still eligible to be signed by another team in the league. With OWL expanding as rapidly as it is, he has a good chance of finding a spot that keeps him in the limelight and in a position that allows his toxicity to spread.
When an Overwatch League team sends out a questionnaire asking if respondents think that “events celebrating minority groups are probably driving away their core fans,” it implies that the team and the league either doesn’t believe that minority groups are part of the “core audience”, or that these diversity efforts are optional. It implies that the validity of my fandom is reliant on my ability to either be quiet in my support, or steadfast in my willingness to endure overt efforts to push people like me away.
Building Stronger Spaces
New fans should not feel obligated to prove themselves in order to join a community—the community should do everything its power to prove itself worthy of being joined. By continuing to focus on strengthening and perpetuating the antiquated idea of gaming’s “core audience,” industry heavyweights do a disservice to the medium and the people who love it. The key to building a vibrant and healthy community is providing a space where the people in it feel valued. Rallying around the diversity in age, race, gender, and sexuality that already exists within the community can only empower it. Blizzard just needs to look at their own lore and the fan communities that have sprung up around it to see that.
As I drove into Burbank to attend the All Star Game in August, I could hear the “This isn’t for you!” whispers get louder and louder as I approached the arena. But once I got inside, as players filed in to set up their stations and the announcers prepared their analysis, I watched a group of season ticket holders from a range of backgrounds greet each other with the fervor of college friends coming together after a long summer. It was like they were coming home. The first season of the Overwatch League wasn’t perfect, sure, but it at least created an environment that brought these people together in the physical space, and outside of the private Discord servers they may have previously felt confined to.
And as I took my seat—sitting amongst a rainbow of faces as colorful as the ones in the game from all over LA who I knew were there to hang out and watch some Overwatch—I realized something:
They were there. They were supposed to be there.
And so was I.